I’ve been an evangelist for virtual reality ever since I first tried on a Google Cardboard and took a virtual tour of the Palace of Versailles. That’s why I bought the HTC Vive when it first came out, and while I mostly use it for games, VR has other applications too, which I’ve been enjoying exploring. One big example is that it’s a good way to bring people together from all over into a single “space”, allowing for more natural interaction than a screen and a camera. This is the concept behind a popular program called AltspaceVR. It’s designed for hosting events in virtual reality and has the capabilities to support any kind of gathering you can imagine. There are theaters for viewing parties, an auditorium for presentations, various hang out spots, and even rooms designed with functionality for games like Dungeons & Dragons and Cards Against Humanity.
I’ve attended several presentations and games in AltspaceVR, so I thought it might be time for me to host an event of my own. Any user can set up any kind of event, and you can even request for the developers to feature it. I thought karaoke might be a fun thing to try, so I set up a “karaoke party” and talked with a developer representative to have it featured. As the planned time and date approached, over 30 people expressed interest in the event. I got pretty excited. What came next, though, was not what I expected.
As soon as I entered the virtual room, which was filled to the maximum capacity, I started having technical problems. Once those were out of the way, the developer representative showed me how the room worked. There was a problem though: the rep and I didn’t exactly agree on what “karaoke” meant. I imagined one or a few people singing at a time; what they had set up was just a bunch of people adding lyric videos to a Playlist and having everyone sing together. And that would have been fine, except that I quickly learned that we have a long way to go before VR can truly mimic human interaction.
One of the first and biggest problems I ran into was the same thing that hinders all communication online: anonymity. Everyone in AltspaceVR has a user name and avatar, but we’re still talking to strangers, and that means bad behavior is going to come out. A couple of grown men very quickly started trying to ruin everyone else’s good time, shouting inappropriate things over the songs and trying to drown out everyone and everything else. These same individuals, and others, also wreaked havoc with the video Playlist voting system. Instead of singing along with whatever was playing, they would solicit other users to vote for the songs they chose, thus causing those songs to play sooner. And of course, since you can add any YouTube video you want to the playlist, we had people trying to pull one over on us. People cued up religious prayers, tired memes (Rickrolling is still relevant right?), and intentionally provocative and inappropriate pieces. Needless to say, people complained about all of these annoyances. Unfortunately, all of their complaints had to come to me, an average user clearly in way over my head. I eventually had to start kicking people out of the room, but even that was difficult.
AltspaceVR’s features are great, but a few things keep them from really being able to mimic face-to-face communication just yet. The biggest problem I ran into was that it is very difficult to tell who in a crowded room is speaking. The software does have some tools to help with this: a person’s voice is louder when your avatar is closer to them, and each avatar design has some visual cues to help show when the user is speaking. But even then, with as many people as we had, it wasn’t always easy to tell. Certain helpful users had to approach me to tell me who the disruptive people were, and once I was able to identify them, I really had to take the user’s word for it. I did try to make general announcements to the group to ask people to calm down, but there’s no way to pause the videos or stop people from talking over me, so it doesn’t seem like people heard me. Now, it’s still early days for this technology, and I’m confident that AltspaceVR will keep updating.
One thing I would recommend is making it more obvious when someone is talking; the visual cues currently present are very minor and aren’t visible unless you’re very close to someone. It would also help if there was some way for the room administrator to mute other users without them being able to unmute themselves, as it would allow for better announcements and easier intervention. Finally, it would be nice if there was a way for me to limit the number of people in the room when I set up the event, which would have made it more manageable.
Of course, even with all of those changes, there’s one technical reality of VR that doomed my karaoke party from the start: lag. Each piece of equipment used to access AltspaceVR can cause lag and delays, and this is especially so since the program brings together users from multiple VR platforms. The end result is that everyone sees and hears things at different times. And that means, of course, that karaoke is not the best application of this technology. I may be singing along with the song as I hear it, but to someone else, I might be 10 seconds behind the music. Naturally this isn’t a problem that only applies to karaoke, but fortunately it doesn’t usually cause much of a problem. I just happened to choose the one activity that would highlight it the most.
But don’t get me wrong – the event wasn’t a disaster and I don’t regret hosting it. These kinds of risks and experiments are necessary to the development of the technology and spreading new ideas of how to use it. AltspaceVR is an excellent service, and I commend them for taking the steps to make these things possible. There is potential here for great things, and near the end of the event, I was able to experience a taste of where this will eventually lead. As things started to clear out, we were left with a smaller group of friendly people. We spoke about the event and our experiences, I really did feel like I was talking to friends face-to-face.
VR is still far from perfect and my botched karaoke party may have exposed some of its shortcomings, but there’s no denying that it can bring us together more than any other technology. Far from discouraging, the karaoke party gave me hope for what we can make once we have more experience to work with. If developers and users work together, we can create opportunities for great connections.
In that spirit, I’ve already planned a follow up event, where I’m hoping I can use what I’ve learned to do karaoke the way I originally intended. This time, there are specific rules to follow, and I’m expecting to attract fewer people by not having the event featured.
Is it possible to keep things under control in this environment? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.